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Dictionaries lost to time -The Asian Age


As I embark on narrating the tale of a dictionary, a mixed feeling gathers up in me. It is a useful and a precious book but little known to most of us. It in an old book that was first given approval by the authorities way back in 1958. The copy that I possess was published in January 1980, which was its twenty-fourth edition. In terms of time, it is undoubtedly on old book and the saying, 'Old is gold', is apt testimony to its merits in a most comprehensive way. And this characterization makes it not only a book but much more than a book.

I am, of course, talking about Ashu Tosh Dev's --- or commonly known as AT Dev's -- Students' Favourite Dictionary which is from English to Bengali and then back to English. Hardly any dictionary provides us with two categories of meanings from word entries. Dictionaries that have done so, say in Bangladesh, have definitely followed the precedent although there might not be any acknowledgement thereof.

Our book markets have an abundance of dictionaries from various publishers --- Oxford, Chambers, Penguin, Longman, Bangla Academy et al --- that come in different sizes, shapes and colors. Added to this nowadays is the look-alike dictionary of OUP that people often buy either by mistake or on finding that it is somewhat cheaper than the others. I do appreciate such amazing ingenuity in some very skilled people engaged in this specialized job.

How I wish they would do the same for Webster's huge table dictionary, one that we possessed in America but could not bring back home because of its sheer volume!  In the midst of this subtle competition that goes on in the market, AT Dev's Dictionary is nowhere to be found, for obvious reasons. Then again, varieties of dictionaries do not necessarily mean that our students or we ourselves have been using them more and more. Had it been so, there would not have been a constant decline in learning a language, be it Bengali or English at all levels.

Nor would there have been a seemingly less noticeable interest among students in using one. However much we hear English around us these days, in terms of its quality and standard it is not at all encouraging. In fact, what we hear in Bangladesh in the name of English may be called Banglish as it is a curious mixture of sub-standard Bengali and some pidgin English only.

A dictionary is a tool to learn a language; and in the case of mastering a second language, it is all the more important. As educators we feel that youngsters should be trained to use a dictionary from an early stage of schooling long before they tend to develop an apathy towards it or are too lazy to look it up. We all need to use a dictionary at some point or the other, especially when in doubt. Its usefulness is indisputable. "No one can ever presume himself to be so erudite that he can  do without a dictionary", says Rhodri Jones.

An interesting way of looking at the uses of a dictionary lies in the fact that it sets matters right when someone discovers that he has been spelling or pronouncing or has known the meaning of a word, an idiom or any other expression in a certain way for ages only to find that that is not correct. A few examples: we commonly hear of the word 'alphabets' and know it for sure as correct. Only a dictionary tells us that it is wrong. The word 'twilight' is used always in a negative and also in a morbid sense.

AT Dev's dictionary draws our attention to its full meaning: 'a faint light before sunrise and after sunset.' Therefore, if it is before sunrise, it cannot be taken entirely in the negative sense. It is its customary use in society that has ascribed only one meaning to it while the other has gone into oblivion. It is the same with 'dinner' which we, by custom, have associated with a meal in the evening only. That is wrong. I recall the children of my class at a school in Kent, England. They would bring their 'dinner money' to be paid to their Form Teacher for a week's school dinner they would have at school in the middle of the day.

Use and disuse can bring about much transformation in the lexicon of a language. Many other examples can be cited in this connection. Spellings of words like 'accommodation' oftentimes is seen spelt with one 'c' or one 'm' or at least create confusion, however momentary that might be. Spellings of many other words are confusing, oftentimes leading to some hilarity.

In this regard, a witty remark by the celebrated comedian Bhanu Bandopaddhaya is worth mentioning. He says that although it is possible for the word 'pillar' to be spelt with one l, nevertheless, two l's will surely make the pillar stronger. Talking about the charm of AT Dev's dictionary, one who uses it would definitely say that it is sui generis. It is a pleasant coincidence that it is called 'favourite' but it does not bring out its full import when associated only with the word 'students'.

It is much more than that since students and mature people both are in a sense learners and remain so throughout their lives. Therefore, it is essential to all regardless of educational qualifications and age, varying only in their respective purposes of using it. There were times when young and adults alike used it, cherished a copy of it for keeping it handy and went for revised editions in spite of the availability of other dictionaries.

The merits of Dev's dictionary were obvious to them. They felt satisfied by using it, learned much and correctly, which they were to retain all their lives and more so apply them meaningfully. Since long the scenario of learning or learning habits at all levels has undergone great changes at the cost of quality and compromising with sub-standard English, concomitantly reducing the use of a dictionary. Meanwhile, AT Dev's has gone into oblivion.

There are as many as thirty-three appendices in this dictionary, a few of which are common to most other good, standard dictionaries. But what distinguishes Dev's from the others are a number of its special features. Its huge entry of words and phrases from Greek, Latin, French and other languages is almost exhaustive and their explanations in refined Bengali along with English is absolutely excellent. There is a beautiful addition in the appendix which is like reading classical and mythological stories and characters unusual in a regular dictionary.

This appendix is called A Concise Classical and Mythological Dictionary. Indeed it is a dictionary within a dictionary. We often forget or confuse the diminutive forms  of some common words and their meanings, such as 'thimble' from thumb 'asterisk' from star, 'molecule' from mole. Wonder of wonders, a petty poet is called a 'poetaster'. Having gone through Dev's, one feels confident about using the word, however long it has been in disuse.

The appendix on diminutives of Christian names of both males and females frequently spotted in literature makes an interesting read that reminds a reader of characters in the classics. Another appendix on proverbs contains a wealth of knowledge as it helps one brush up one's lessons learnt in younger days in school and college. Simultaneous entries in English and Bengali not only help retrieve things from one's recesses of memory but also make one learn many things new to be added to one's repertoire of knowledge and information.

One discovers proverbs that one never knew of, let alone use. And, on top of this, one can get one's incorrect use of proverbs that one has been using for a long time, of course unwittingly, corrected by reading this particular appendix. The appendix on quotations from great minds is no less fascinating, useful for reference, and thought-provoking. One can spend hours together on deciphering, finding inner meanings, as one can keep on expanding the sayings in their fullness.

A few quotations are mentioned here for the interested readers to ponder on. "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him", says Voltaire. An Old Epitaph reads, "What I give, I have; what I spent, I had; what I kept, I lost." Fowler says, "The best teachers of humanity are the lives of great men." Dev quotes Bruyere, who says, "The sweetest of all sounds is that of the voice of the woman we love."

He even includes one quotation from the Holy Quran: "Haste is of the devil. " This dictionary is a gold mine of marvelous quotations that add to its substance.A whole lot of idiomatic commonplace companions are there in an appendix in the form of similes that, however 'commonplace', oftentimes slip out of our minds when it is time to use any.

The list of collective phrases is not to be ignored either. We do often use a dictionary of synonyms when we need to and also come across synonyms and antonyms of some words in a regular dictionary. But what sets this book apart is its incisive analysis of differences between synonymous words showing when in a word is more appropriate and therefore preferable to another.

Other gems in the appendix include a list of words and phrases meant for acquiring general knowledge on terms such as Zionism, Third Force, Quisling, Gestapo and Filibuster, which have so far remained jargon for specialized professional groups only. An inclusion of such words in a segregated list makes it known to any user, especially adults. In the same way, an appendix on important places, countries and continents of the world is a ready reckoner for any inquiring mind.

AT Dev's is not only full of geographical data but also old names that can be part of competitions on general knowledge for young learners. While this World Gazetteer deals with information on global geography, a parallel appendix deals extensively with historical facts beginning in 10000 BC, recorded as the age of the first cultivation of the earth down to 1969.

It contains answers to myriad questions that can be mind-blowing as one goes from one question to another. Students' Favourite Dictionary on the one hand is a regular dictionary; on the other, it is colossal in respect of being an invaluable record of History, Geography, English Literature, English Grammar and General Knowledge. It is a chest of treasure where lies an endless reserve of knowledge for human minds to extract from.

As if that were not enough to make it a comprehensive guide to human intellect, it is embellished with two last but not least appendices, one on English literature that consists of introducing books, even famous poems and essays along with the names of the writers that one can use in an alphabetical order. Written in about 3,200 lines, the old English epic Beowulf is also enlisted as "... perhaps the earliest considerable poem in any modern language." And for the rest, as a reader names it, s/he finds it there. Biographies of illustrious people from a wide range are included in a very special appendix.

A brief research on Dev's dictionary in terms of its content analysis prompts one to recall a few lines from Tagore which in apt paraphrase notes that we have travelled far and wide to see shores of distant lands, but have not spotted a beautiful crystal dewdrop on top of a stalk of paddy that lay so close to our abode. AT Dev's dictionary very justifiably deserves this appreciation and its due recognition among circles of enlightened people.


Dr. Nazma Yeasmeen Haque reads, writes, loves music and is founder-Principal, Radiant International School, Dhaka